Friday, April 18, 2008
So, today I felt sort of restless. I was doing my normal routine: Get up. Feed cat. Dress. Make tea. Put on BBC 3. Check work-related email for today's disasters. Settle in with book (The Realm) while getting outside tea and toast...
Twitchy. Couldn't concentrate on the book-portion of the day and slowly the impression began to form that I might be able to stand a trip to town. These occur so rarely that it is a good idea to act upon them right away, or I would never make it to the bank or buy a book. I hate leaving the village and I hate Chester but there's no bank here and no books so I am forced, about once a month, to make the trip.
Checking the schedule for the country bus I saw that, in theory, there would be one in 25 minutes. Jumped up and threw things into the shopping bag, wrapped up warmly (windy today), patted the cat's head and marched stoically out to face The World about five minutes to bus time.
There were three people at the bus stop, uncomfortable in the wind, glancing at the sky and their watches in rhythm. We waited. We watched. Waited. Checked sky. Checked watch. Waited...
There is a thing about living in a country village that has not really changed all that much. If you don't have a car, you really can't leave the village very easily.
In the old days, when people first lived here from about the middle of the Roman occupation and all through the middle ages until the time the railway came through, people didn't really go to town. Chester, or at first Deva, was there and in North American terms not very far away at 8.8 miles. It has always been the place where you went to get luxury items. If you couldn't make it for yourself at home, you had to go to Chester and spend a little cash. But it was a big deal. And for a very long time, from the time after the Romans went home, it was quite dangerous.
In this part of the world, you might notice that the villages, of which there are an amazing number, are actually pretty far off the beaten track, literally. The A-41 highway that takes you from Deva to Mediolanum (Whitchurch), on to Shrewsbury and all the way, eventually, to London is a surprisingly lonely ride. Unlike such roads in N. Am. it does not pass through any of the small places on the map. It will take you pretty much from the centre of Chester to the centre of Shrewsbury, but nothing much in between. There are a few pubs, a few farms facing onto the highway, but the picturesque villages are accessible only by taking one of the lanes and following its windey way, often surprisingly far "inland" from the road.
I found out why.
The route taken by the A-41 was originally laid out by the Romans to move troops and goods from north to south, skirting the scary bits where the mad Welshmen lay in wait, to the garrison at Chester. In their time, there were lots of little way-stations along the route. But the villages that grew up after the legionaries pulled out, are all set very far away from the main roads. When law and order, the Pax Romana, disintegrated, living close to a main road was a very bad idea indeed. And one simply did not travel very often, even from village to village.
Since the Enclosures, the fields around the villages, and the lanes to the villages, are lined with tall, thick and impenetrable hedges. In some places the hedges grow right up to the edge of the road leaving only a few inches of grass verge, and sometimes none at all. There is no pavement (sidewalk for N. American readers).
The lanes, being designed to allow a single farm cart at a time to pass, were never meant for pedestrians. If you want to walk across the fields to visit someone, you took the footpaths, which are still there, and still equipped with stiles, now maintained by the Cheshire County Council. If you were going to town, you certainly weren't going on foot. But back in the day, with only horse-drawn carts, it wasn't quite so dangerous. Now, with the proliferation of cars (my own family has five) any given blind corner could be your last.
There is the canal towpath, but between here and Waverton, the next largish village, it has been sadly neglected and in places can be nearly impassable in the muddy months (I can't call it winter).
There are buses, but as I have learned, sometimes they come. And sometimes they don't.
In general, if you don't have a car, you stay in the village.
So, even now, with the modern world blaring and screeching at us from all corners of the world and its vile tendrils creeping around, there is still a strong sense in the village that here we live, and here we stay. The enforced isolation of a place like this village can be a boon. If you can't go to town for your social life, you are forced to get to know your neighbours. You go to the art classes at the village Institute. You buy all your meat at the village butcher. You buy your crisps and hoochies and Daily Mail at the shop and the ladies in the post office quickly learn all about how much and how often you pay your Council Tax. You attend meetings and go for walks with the village wildlife group, you join the village gardening association; you volunteer for the village Age Concern. You rejoin the human race in a way that would be nearly impossible in a place like London or Toronto. Life becomes scaled down and human.
How did this come home to me today?
My neighbour but one, Wally, a 60-something bachelor who has lived in the same cottage most of his life, happened to walk past us while we were waiting for the bus.
When I had waited until about half an hour after the bus was supposed to arrive, I gave up and decided that there would be no trip to town today; I went home and put the kettle on.
Wally was in the back courtyard hanging his laundry on the line and saw, out of the corner of his eye, someone moving back and forth in my kitchen.
Having seen me waiting for the bus, and not knowing that the bus was a no-show, Wally thought someone was in my cottage while I wasn't there. I looked up and saw his honest face peering in through the kitchen window.
"I thowt sumuun maht be in there..." he said through the window when I jumped.
I explained that the bus had not arrived and he gave the complex gesture, typical of Cheshire people, a shrug and a smiling frown and head-shake that conveyed all necessary sympathy for the inadequacies of the modern world.
Who needs town?